Sunday, February 22, 2009

Every Sunday Should be So Sweet, or Roasting Meat in a Pot Sure Beats The Oscars

After indulging in a great big bunch of beer and bourbon at my friend's enormous party in his new roasterie (something that took me out of commission for a good 36 hours), I needed some sweet, sweet medicine to ease the pain. That medicine was, naturally, a Pot Roast with Yorkshire Pudding. And I was in luck, because I happened to have, in my fridge, a bottom round roast, and a big shoulder of pork.

Pork you say? Strange route to take on a journey to slow cooked meat heaven, but let me explain. You see, I owe a friend approximately $16.55 worth of spaghetti and meatballs. A strange amount, I know--and a long story involving our world famous Clementonics, and probably more Thin Man movies--but a debt owed nonetheless. And during my shrewd grocery shopping sessions, I keep an eye out for good deals on large amounts of things. Huge sacks of potatoes, for instance, and in this case, the large amounts of meat as described above. And this would serve me for many meals to come.

That said, I started out by browning about 2/3 of the beef roast, which (lucky me) had a great layer of fat on it, left on by a kind, if unwitting, butcher. Heavily seasoned, I let it roll in my heavy cast iron dutch oven for a good 10-15 minutes per side as I moved on with the rest of the meat. This meant boning the pork shoulder in order to prepare it for my meat grinder; a wonderful byproduct of this is a pork bone that was added to my pot for my roast--extra bones are always a welcome addition in my kitchen. Once that was done and the bone in my pot, browning with the beef, I cubed the pork and the remaining beef, putting a bit of each aside for stew or something of that nature down the line, and sending the remaining 3 1/2 pounds through my grinder for the infamous meatball dinner. All this into the freezer until I decide to make stew or I get the call from the Godfather that the time has come for his meatballs.

The thing about browning meat is that it requires the patience of letting things happen at a lower heat for a longer period of time. I suppose it's easy to think that browning = hot heat really fast and loud and hard, but this really just creates smoke and splatters and black stuff. I let the cast iron heat over a low to medium-low flame for about 5 minutes, add some oil, and then add the seasoned meat. Things should crackle in a pleasant manner rather than splatter everywhere, and the sugars in the meat will slowly be drawn out and caramelized, at which point you can rotate the meat for a nice, even browning. Things in your kitchen will start to smell and sound really, really good, and neighborhood pets may decide they like you even more.

Again, I was lucky enough to get a good fat cap on this piece of beef, and it crisped up really nice. After all sides were browned, I took the meat out of the pot (along with the pork bone), and poured all the rendered fat out and saved it for the healthful (if in an 1800's sense) Yorkshire Pudding. Into the pot went quartered onions, carrots, a can of tomatoes, peppercorns, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, and garlic; the meat and bone were snuggled into all this and a bit of water added to keep everything moist and happy. Oh, and salt. Don't forget to season things!

The tough yet flavorful and cheap cut of bottom round got a lid and went into the oven at about 250 degrees. Here it would remain for about 2 hours or so, maybe 2 1/2, slowly cooking up nice and tender without overdrying at all. Nothing's going to be medium rare with a cut like this, as that would be unbearable chewy; the slow, moist cooking breaks down all of those tough muscle fibers, and done right, a bottom round can come out as a beautiful roast.

I roasted some red potatoes to go with it, and braised some turnip greens as well. Oh, and don't let me forget the almond cake--I made a quick almond cake with some leftover sliced almonds, buzzed in the food processor with some sugar, beaten with egg yolks and flour; a meringue was made with the egg whites and some more sugar, then all combined with a touch of almond extract and baked in a buttered and floured round pan (the spring-form pan bought, incidentally, at one of the country's remaining water-powered grain mills in Rhode Island, in a funny little shop they have to the side--but really, this place has some awesome grains and is in a gorgeous setting. I'm convinced I saw a hobbit there.) until nice and brown. After it cooled a touch, it got brushed it with a syrup made by boiling sugar, water and rosemary in order to keep it moist and preserve it a bit, and to give it a great rosemary scent.

As the roast was finishing up, I pulled the pork bone out, and the meat left on it just fell right off. What better to do while waiting for a hunk of beef and tallow-soaked pastries than to shred the pork up, dust it with some sea salt, and introduce it to some good mustard? When I was done cleaning my fingers of the juices, I filled a six-shooter muffin tin with the reserved drippings from browning the meat and put it in a cranked-up oven, after about ten minutes I married the lethally hot, near-smoking fat and cold Yorkshire Pudding batter (milk, eggs, flour) that had been separated much like the McDLT of old in a quick and daring manner, getting all back into the oven without delay, and resisting the urge to look in lest the puddings fall. Well, okay. Maybe I looked once.
Some deliciously melting, unctuous vegetables were salvaged from the pot roast braise, and the rest of the solids were strained out of the liquid, which created a great jus that I didn't bother tainting with any sort of thickening agent. All served along with tumblers of a big bottle of wine, not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The almond cake was cut, and served on a quick creme Anglaise (eggs and sugar tempered into warm milk then cooked until the eggs thicken the sauce around 170-180 degrees), and was a nice, simple way to end the meal. A good feast had by all, and plenty of leftovers to pick at as I ponder the upcoming spaghetti and meatballs. If only Mickey Rourke could have come over for dinner instead of doing whatever it was he did that night, he'd have felt much more appreciated.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Who's That Weirdo With a Box of Kale on My Porch?

Even though the recent temperature soar was merely the typical tease that always seems to happen in February (I remember living in Boston, working in some awful office in Central Square, stepping outside into the sunniest February day ever; the strong light made the 40 degree day feel like spring was there at last; of course, that door slammed shut later that week with a massive Nor'easter that buried us in snow until, roughly, August), it is time to start thinking about all the wonderful edibles we have to look forward to this spring and summer. Earthy, dirty (this is a good thing--I used to suck on rocks as a child just to get this flavor--some might call it minerality) fiddlehead ferns, young peas, and the ubiquitous ramps--everything green, not to mention baby lambs. Then, later in the summer, the sweetest corn; juicy, red (red! can you believe it?) tomatoes; big fat zucchinis and squash. I once received a zucchini of the largest order from a friend and lived off of it for nearly a week; looking back, I really hope the size was due to the abundance of sun and water rather than that of Miracle-Gro. Yikes.

The point here is that ISN'T THIS EXCITING? Despite my being enamored with all of the availability of produce while visiting California recently, part of the reason I have to live in a place with four seasons is all of the anticipation that it brings. Would sitting on the shore of Lake Michigan on one of our hot summer days really be as sweet as it is without the biting cold of winter? I love to walk out on the icy pier of Hollywood Beach in the winter and soak in the frigid wind off the lake, look at the ice floating in the water, and revel in the calm, seeing in it me sitting in the same spot in the summer, drinking something cold and delicious (no doubt something lime-based due to the excitement of my recent purchase of a really good lime squeezer), sweating it out, then jumping in the lake. One needs a night in order to enjoy the day, right?

Braising and roasting turns in to sautéing and straight from the garden eating turns into grilling and smoking turns into pickling and preserving turns into more slow-cooking once again...

All this brings up the very important question of where we'll get our food this year. Gladly, Chicago's Green City Market, despite seemingly becoming a haven for double-wide strollers and chef-spotters, is nevertheless (or perhaps because of this) growing each year, and never really goes away--I believe this is the first year it's open year round. So, every Wednesday and Saturday, we can stock up--and this is really a great place to begin our understanding of food and seasonality, and why eating local is important. Shopping at farmers' markets allows us only what's in season, and what was able to grow. It helps us understand why we cook what we cook, when we cook it. Oh--THAT's why we see arugula on every menu in the summer. THAT's why we hear food-types talk about the crime of out-of-season tomatoes. THAT's why I go nuts for peaches every summer.

To take this further, I present the CSA. That's Community Sustained/Supported Agriculture. To those who aren't familiar already, this is how it works:
  • You buy a share of a CSA up front from a particular farm at the beginning of the growing season. Much like buying stocks. But I trust farmers way more than I trust bankers.
  • Depending on the share you buy, you pick up, or are delivered a box full of the farm's produce. This will only include what they were able to harvest that week. This means that if you live in Chicago, you won't be getting any bananas or coconuts. This is also the sign of a true CSA--I've come across some that slip in California produce to pad the box. The way I see it, buying the share is investing in the farm and trusting the outcome. If they don't have enough produce to fill the box that week due to a huge storm or drought, well, that's part of the risk taken by each CSA member. After all, this is the risk every single farmer in the world takes when they buy and plant a seed, isn't it? This is reality, and I'd prefer to have less in the box if less is what's available.
  • You eat the box of food. Part of the challenge is making something delicious if all you get is, say, rutabagas (though this is unlikely). It's the anti-Costco. Wonderful, isn't it?
A lot of places add their eggs into the mix, and sometimes you can even add something like a chicken. Which makes that chicken very special. It reminds me of a time, during my cheffing days, when I was on the phone with a purveyor of great, clean, well raised chicken and pork. He also had some rabbits, and asked me if I wanted some. It was autumn, and who doesn't love a good rabbit stew? I thought about it, and asked for 6. Then I did a bit of math and changed my mind. No, make it 9, I said. And it struck me, that seemingly small decision I just made was going to take the lives of 3 rabbits that were currently hopping around, wiggling their noses, eating grass somewhere on his beautiful farm. And I think we get removed from understanding that in our day to day lives. I believe that if we eat meat, at some point, we've got to be able to face what it is we're eating, and take the life from it ourselves; otherwise, are we really entitled to it? I'm not saying that everything we eat has to be hand harvested, but I feel that we, as eaters, need to be more aware of what we're taking when we do eat. To that end, we took a group of cooks and servers down to his farm, toured it, and killed some chickens ourselves. It really opened some eyes; I'll always remember a couple of grill cooks saying to me how it changed their perspective--that every time, in the heat of a busy service, a chicken breast (or anything else for that matter) gets wasted, that's a part of a life that gets wasted, and that's not something they really thought of much before.

ANYWAY, a good source of information on CSAs is Local Harvest. You'll get a good list of CSAs nearby; it'll tell you where it can be picked up and how involved you can get. The thing to remember, though, is that it is a group effort--I think to get one's head out of the mindset of simply paying for a service is important--rather, it is just what it stands for--community sustained agriculture, and for it to work, we've got to act like a community; we've got to share in the risk that these farmers are experiencing every day, and we've got to treat these wonderful, whole foods that they are bringing to us in a respectful (and delicious) way.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Everything in (Low) Moderation, or Home Brew, Cocktails, and the Art of Grilling Sausages

I had never bottled home brew, or really done anything else with home brew other than drink it, until last Saturday. In my experience, when it's good, it's really good, and when it's bad, well, let's just focus on when it's good. Friends of mine got married down in Texas a couple of years ago, and it was full of hoots and hollers. There was an amazing brisket (the guy who made it, a shy, slim, old cowpoke type wouldn't give me any of his secrets or tips other than to use "spices and cook it slowly"--I've had better tips from mushroom foragers) served in an equally mind-blowing rehearsal dinner spot in a clearing by a creek on a huge ranch, complete with longhorn cattle and massive, beautiful, sprawling lightning storms in the huge Texas sky. Then there was a guy I dubbed "Big Tex" who gave instructions in the hotel lobby on how to make a Texas-shaped waffle, and told me, thumbs hooked in belt loops, that the last time he was in Chicago he was arrested 4 times walking up Michigan Avenue because he was just so darn friendly and no one knew how to take it. But perhaps the best part of that wedding was the fact that the bride's brother, as a wedding gift, brewed what must have been hundreds of bottles of 4 styles of his own beer, hand labeled each one with custom labels, and dipped each top in wax. It was mind blowing. And the thing is, the beer was really good. I think I saw several purses being turned into stolen beer carriers, and suit jacket pockets seemed to have much more swing to them going out than coming in. I'm not sure I've ever seen a more amazing wedding gift. And I'm certain that I've never given one that even comes close.

My most recent encounter with home brew was equally as favorable. During my recent trip to San Francisco, one of the many gastronomical stops was at my brother's friend George's house in Oakland. They'd had about 5 gallons of beer going for a couple of months, and time had come to bottle it. Which was perfect timing, as I'd never done this before and was intrigued by the prospect of it. So, we got up bright and early (giving a certain time allowance, of course, to shake the cobwebs loose from the night before and eat a scone or two) and headed across the Bay Bridge into Oakland. My experience with the city is brief; some relatives lived there at one point, and I'd been to the taco trucks on International Boulevard a few nights before (mmm...lovely fish tacos and the carnitas, oh, the carnitas, crispy and soft at once, cooked on a flattop griddle and getting the flavors of the million tacos before it, much like a grandmother's old cast iron pan, and so cheap, eaten on fiberglas benches just outside the truck), just before the obligatory stop at In and Out for a Double-Double (and yes, I did get it animal style, which for some reason had slipped by me over the years, but oh so wonderful--I was lucky enough that my Oakland-based friend insisted I get it that way). And today we'd go to a really nice part of town, and met at my George's house. Apparently Fresno State has some sort of sausage/wine/olive oil making school, and a store that sells the results. Seeing how those are the three ingredients necessary to sustain life, I was hooked as soon as he pulled some of the sausages out of the fridge for us to grill.

BUT, we needed a few things first. Namely, bread for the sausages from the wonderful Arizmendi Bakery, and limes for the margaritas we decided we'd need for proper beer bottling. After all, we couldn't just be drinking slugs of the Old Overholt rye we'd be using to '"sanitize our mouths" before starting the siphon of beer.

Bread and limes taken care of, and one warm cheese roll later, we were back in George's kitchen getting ready to bottle the beer. Thus, the margaritas were in high order. As George squeezed limes (reminding me of a time I staged in a great Chicago restaurant, where lime after lime was juiced, cryovaced, and frozen during peak season in order to have top-notch lime juice for drinks year round) and measured out tequila, orange Patron, and triple sec, his wife Jamie returned from the farmer's market bearing olive-studded bread and wonderfully spicy garlic, which she ground into the aforementioned olive oil, making our mouths burn deliciously with the hot garlic as we waited for the fresh, sour drinks, devoid of any sticky, corn syrupy, inexplicable margarita mix (I mean, why did margarita mix ever happen? Is it that hard to find a lime and squeeze the juice out of it?). George delivered, and the drinks were gone in short order, though Jamie, who surely saved us from drinking-while-bottling-beer mishaps with the super absorbent bread gave us a funny look, and said a bemused "no!" when George asked her if she wanted a margarita at 11:30 am. A respectable decision.

At this point, the bottling was underway, and after plenty of sterilizing of both bottling tubes and swallowing tubes, I was left to man the bottling station. I'll save you the details other than the fact that it became clear that this was the sort of event that isn't quite so much about the actual "event" itself as it is about the activities that surround it. After all, this beer wouldn't be ready to drink until it's final bottle conditioning was complete in another couple of weeks, and all in all, it's a repetitive task, one that I was thrilled to be doing for the first time, and one that just cries for some sort of celebration, ceremonious or not. And that's when the mojitos happened.

As George jumped the fence and borrowed some mint from a neighboring yard (all very stunning to me given the fact that this was in February and I am talking about herbs and fruit from the front yard on the way back from the farmer's market - that's California, I guess), I considered the similarity of this event to that of something like a pig slaughter or a harvest party in France. A smaller scale, sure, but the same spirit and idea; a festive occasion, celebrating the raising, or the growth, or in this case the brewing of something wonderful with food and drink that was created in a similar way. The mojitos were delicious, with a touch of brown sugar adding some welcome depth of flavor. I'd nearly finished the capping of about 4 or 5 dozen bottles, and we were about to light the grill for the sausages. George said, "I was thinking about putting together a whiskey sour. Interested?" I'm not sure I'll ever forget those words, and of course I was interested, and this time he was off to the front yard to get some lemons from his lemon tree. Which is not to be mistaken for his Meyer lemon tree.


The grill was lit, and the whiskey sours decadent. Somehow the topic of Absinthe came up; naturally, as happens with most conversations about Absinthe, a beautiful bottle was produced from the liquor cabinet, made by the nearby St. George Distillery in Alameda. I feel like so many of the absinthes being produced (now that it is back in full swing here in the States) are so floral and almost too pretty to drink. I mean, this one had meadowsweet in it. What on earth is meadowsweet? Who knew? But it was beautiful, and strong, and I'm pretty sure that wormwood or not, Absinthe is capable of driving anyone to the point of cutting off their ear. Luckily, we only had a small taste.

The sausages came off the grill with their accompanying peppers and onions, and we chose 2 of the collection of nearly 20 different mustards in George's cupboard to slather on. I cut mine in half to fit on the asiago roll from the bakery, then piled on the veg and a bunch of green peppercorn mustard. On the side, I ate the other half of the sausage with a porter mustard (by the way, has anyone seen or made this mustard?). All washed down with their last batch of beer called "Jeff", named after the nervous, sweaty manager at a nearby brewery who reluctantly gave them a lot of the bottles they'd use for the batch. (The current batch is called "Axl", due to several Guns n' Roses references made before and during the brewing and bottling.)

Did I mention we were sitting outside during most of this?

Well, I took heart in the fact that summer would be in Chicago in a mere 3 or 4 months, and we departed, happily filled with some new knowledge and a great experience. We drove back over the bridge and I quickly napped; after all, later that evening I'd be at it again, eating good pizza, drinking wine, walking around and getting lost while trying to find the AC/DShe concert I was inexplicably going to, capping the epic and wonderful day and night with a glass of champagne at a wine bar just down the alley from the great Zuni Cafe. I certainly can't say that my rest was well-earned that night, but I slept the satisfied sleep of someone who's been hard at work all day long.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I Think I'll Keep Mine on Top of My Guinness

I had my first Clover-brewed coffee today; wandering around Valencia Street in San Francisco, I came upon a coffee shop called Ritual, which had the machine. I suppose I’d heard about it some time back; I saw a video of it or something along those lines, then there was the huge thing about Starbucks actually buying the company that makes the Clover in a very Bank of America, sprawling mass of ooze fashion.

What is a clover? It's a machine that brews single cup coffee; the idea being that each cup is brewed fresh and to order at highly specific conditions, temperatures and brew times, rather than the traditional brewing of a large batch, which is then stored in a thermal container and poured as needed. Since coffee, flavor and caffeine are extracted under optimal conditions, it’s the coffee nerd’s dream, right?

Well, not necessarily. For starters, since Starbucks bought the entire company, it may be difficult getting good coffee via Clover. Even if you can’t be bothered to care about the corporate take over of every corner worldwide by Starbucks, the use of clover by Starbucks seems a bit like McDonald’s using a cryovac machine and sous vide techniques to gently cook a Filet-O-Fish. After all, as the barista in Ritual said in our conversation today, “It’s still Starbucks coffee!” Mass purchased and over roasted to reach a lowest common denominator of global consistency. (Update: See smallerdemon's comments below this post for some clarification on the beans Starbucks uses for it's Clover brews) Nevertheless, it seems like some places are using the Clover still, though I haven’t come across one in Chicago yet (though I do tend to stick to my one or two coffee shops, I think I heard that Intelligentsia uses them, so maybe this whole post is old news to some of you).

BUT you didn’t come here to read about my political views, so let’s move on. The coffee I had brewed in the Clover came from Ethiopia, and was roasted in the Ritual storefront. Which is a big deal to me--I feel like there are a lot of great little coffee houses, and some may even use really good, well sourced and roasted coffee, but too often this is not the case. So I always love when I’m somewhere that I know the coffee was roasted there, and not too long before. I suppose I never really understood the love of Illy coffee; I’m sure it’s great in Italy, and it’s not that it’s terrible here, but an ocean, thousands of miles, and how ever many months later, how good can it still be? And I’m not so sure I really trust a company that prepackages espresso into tea bag-like pods for speed and ease. We all know that’s not what good food and drink is about.

Okay. No more agendas. Really.

Anyway, the coffee was great--clean (which is such a big deal to me, no raw edgy stomach full of acid headache feeling afterwards); transparent, in that aroma and taste were clear, and unintentional bitterness absent. (Side story: Despite San Francisco being warmer than 9 degree Chicago, it is still San Francisco. As Mark Twain famously said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Plus, I didn’t have a lid. (Side-side story: I usually don’t use a lid--the thought process being that coffee is pretty much based on aroma. Plug your nose and have a sip of black coffee. You taste sour and bitter. None of that great coffee aroma is there, because you’re blocking it all with your plugged nose. So why cover all that with a lid, leaving the only option for aroma in the hands of whatever sneaks up the back of your sinus when you swallow?)) All that said, the coffee got cold towards the end, but I drank it cold. And there was nary a trace of bitterness.

I had asked the barista if it was a pain to use the Clover, especially since their set up consisted of a normal coffee bar on one side, and the Clover over on the other side of the room, on the other side of the cash register. She said no, and, duh, it actually made sense--for the Clover, a barista measures coffee, grinds it, puts it in the machine, adjusts the settings, and pushes a button. The other baristas were making espresso drinks: grinding, packing, extracting, steaming, frothing, mixing, etc. So that made sense.

On the Clover, a circular platform on which the ground coffee beans sit descends into the sleek stainless steel machine, much like Han Solo did into his deep freeze on Jabba the Hut’s weird ship. Water is heated and added, the coffee brewed into the appropriately sized cup. That’s it. The spent coffee comes back up on the platform, looking much like old Han after his thaw, and gets squeegeed off into a container for trash (or, if you live somewhere like SF, for compost). That’s it. And here's a video of it that I found on Youtube (I didn't make this video, so I can't claim any sort of cinematography credits here).

Again, it tasted great. But it could be a bit pricey. Mine was on the lower end available at $3.00 for a 12 ounce cup (the price depends on the beans used). So it’s not like it’s that much, but percentage wise, we’re talking about a 50% increase from a $2 cup. No refills either. So maybe the whole thing is a bit too esoteric for it’s own good (I was the only person in this crowded coffee shop getting coffee made this way; I actually thought that the machine was broken at first), and maybe Starbucks jumped on it too soon. I suppose we’ll see. And personally, I really love the process of a French press, and the imperfections of things done manually. I’m not convinced that machine-eliminated nuances are the direction to head. So for now, I’ll appreciate good roasting of good beans done locally and brewed however they come. Because good brewing is really just an extension of the care put into good growing and good roasting, and it’s not all about snobbery, or the just as bad anti-snobbery, is it?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sometimes, It's Nice To Not Have To Wear a Jacket In February

A friend of mine invited me into her restaurant this week for a tasting of her new menu. She’s been at it in the same place for about ten years now, and the quarterly menu change is a pretty automatic thing. Usually, I’ll go in, go down to the kitchen, and taste the plates put up along with the servers as they try the new dishes and get acquainted. This time though, I hadn’t seen her in awhile, so we actually just sat down to have lunch together and go over the new menu. It was a real treat, I ate a massive amount of a lot of things, and we caught up.

The food is simple American food, done in a gorgeous dining room and presented in a new way. First things first, the bacon and egg salad caught my eye--a no brainer American cousin of the Lyonnaise Salad. Baby spinach tossed with a warm bacon vinaigrette and big chunks of bacon, topped with a poached egg and a sprinkle of sea salt. The key in a salad like this is that the egg be poached perfectly and the vinaigrette warm, but not so hot that it wilts the spinach. You could even use the less expensive, more flavorful ‘regular’ spinach--it's got a lot of flavor, and in this salad of huge flavors it would be welcome. Great tangy vinaigrette and bacon fat--mmmm--and that great moment of breaking the egg--something that can only be done once, and then it’s done, like cracking into a creme brulee or popping a champagne cork, so special and momentous every time it happens. This egg was, in fact, cooked perfectly, and it made that moment a great one...the yolk oozed down over the salad and into the vinaigrette, and with a hunk of bread, it was a delight to eat, and so simple: bacon, egg, spinach, vinegar, salt. It reminded me of a salad I love to make at home--cut some lardons, render the fat out and get the bacon crispy, quarter red onions (that’s right, nice big chunks), sauté the onions for a bit, then throw in some pine nuts and thyme; deglaze the whole thing with a good vinegar (which, by the way, is so easy and delicious to make at home) and pour it all over a big bowl of arugula you cut from your garden while the onions cooked. Toss it all together; the fat and vinegar make the dressing, and now you’ve got all these great bits of garnish in there as well. This is a whole meal with the bread you baked; simple and cheap, relative to a more traditional “entree” type meal.

Other things I tasted were also good, like a lamb ragout with a fat, thin pappardelle noodle (strange description, isn’t it? But you get it...), the lamb braised well for a long, long time, but not too much--I always hear the voice of a chef at my school explaining that YES, it is possible to overcook something in a braise. I think that often times, cooks think that since something is cooking in a pot full of liquid, the meat will never dry out. That’s not the case, and if you have ever had pulled pork overly dependent on boring, sugary ‘barbecue’ sauce, you know what I mean. The key is to hit the window of succulence with something that you are cooking the hell out of. And a truly well done braise is special. As demonstrated in this picture of a man I made out of braised pork.

Of the desserts, a greek yogurt panna cotta was interesting; the thick yogurt offers a stability that lessens the need for gelatin--something that is so often used too heavily in panna cotta, resulting in rubbery cream, as opposed to that firm but meltingly unctuous texture of a really good one. The yogurt also lends a nice tang, and though this dessert is topped with a salad of citrus, the yogurt’s sourness adds a bit of diversity and complexity to the dessert’s flavors.

Needless to say, this was all I ate all day yesterday (I didn’t mention the truffle butter hamburger, apple dumpling, or wonderfully rich, soft, and smooth Camembert, either) and I feared for my traveling fitness: as I write this, I am on a plane to San Francisco to see my brother and do some serious eating and drinking (it is, after all, strong beer month in San Francisco). How does an unemployed guy afford a trip to San Francisco, you ask? Well, he has a brother with a million frequent flier miles, that's how.

Yesterday’s tasting followed a pretty heavy weekend also, as an old friend was in town and there was a lot of heavy eating: I made dinner (the Tuscan heavy sausage-stuffed chicken legs, white beans, braised kale and roasted potatoes) and we ate at the Hop Leaf (which by the way, has a mind blowingly good sweetbread dish right now with apples and beans, all sort of fricasseed together, accompanying the always wonderful ham sandwich and brisket sandwich). These two meals were bookended by the obligatory “visiting friend visit” to said Hopleaf for a sort of "opening ceremony of indulgence" beer session (I think at some point that night I was caught snatching the final piece of pizza next door at the Blue Bathroom (I’ll have to explain the BB in another post) via the oft-tried, seldom accomplished technique of putting the entire last piece into one’s mouth at once in order to stun competition into submission, amazement and, more frequently, disgust), and the exploration of a new place (new to me only, it’s been there for at least ten years and I just never knew) that sells really good beer (from brewers like Three Floyds and Lagunitas) for 2 bones a pint on Tuesdays. Unreal. The point here, the way I see it, is that I have trained well for a tour of duty (that duty being eating and drinking) in San Francisco with a guy who plans his trips to Chicago based on how many meals can be (un)reasonably squeezed into each day. We once ate a Gyros on the way to the Hopleaf (by the way, I fully recognize that I’m really, really talking about the Hop a lot, but I suppose it can’t really be avoided; asking me to shut up already about the Hop Leaf would be like asking Willie Mays to stop talking about stealing bases), where we drank several beers which, naturally, led us to order frites; all this, incidentally, was a kind of eye-opener on the way to Moody’s Pub for burgers.


I suppose I can see how this all makes me sound like a huge fat pig; I suppose in some respects I am. But this isn’t just about shoving gruel into my gullet; all this food really means something. And being able to experience it all, with others who care, whether in a great city like San Francisco or my home Chicago, or numerous other places (wait until I tell you about the Iowa State Fair!), makes me a lucky, happy huge fat pig. You know?
~"Freight Train", Iowa State Fair 2008 Prize Pig, 1300 lbs.~